A broken system: Are Texas prisons salvageable?

Prison fence
Prison fence

The Dallas Examiner

“The mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.” – Texas Department of Criminal Justice Correctional Officer Handbook, 2015

As The Dallas Examiner’s series, A broken system: Behind the bars of Texas prisons, has explored the stories and practices related to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a wide variety of individuals – the guilty, the wrongly convicted, and former correctional officers – have all claimed to have seen similar wrongs and violations. They have also insisted that not enough is done to change offenders’ behavior. Some have even been witnesses to changes in law or policy related to the TDCJ.

TDCJ has had over two months to explain, correct or counter the claims charged in the series, yet has chosen not to comment.

However, some former corrections officers did come forward.

Moreover, every officer and inmate interviewed for the series also had something positive to say about staff that he or she came across during their stints in various TDCJ units. Despite their collective experiences of smuggling, improper use of force, lack of adequate medical care or general abuse of power, those from both sides of the bars agreed that the TDCJ has some remarkable officers; staff who were respectful and fair, endured attacks from violent inmates or harassment from ranking officers, yet still continued to daily perform a thankless, mostly unseen job.

Those who were interviewed, for the most part, recognized a troubled system that was salvageable; an institution that was capable of improvement, rather than in need of abandonment, with the caveat that it was up to individuals – from voters to TDCJ employees – to initiate change for a better system.

Amanda Gonzales, 38, a former corrections officer at the state’s Buster Cole Unit – who asked that her real name not be used – remembered one interaction with a convict who established what made incarceration bearable, and therefore safer, for inmates and staff alike.

“I had one [inmate] come up to me one time and he said to me ‘So, I hear that you’re being too nice. They want you to be meaner to us.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you think? Do you think I’m too nice?’”

The inmate reportedly replied, “We don’t have to do what you tell us to do. We do what you tell us to do because you earned our respect,” according to Gonzales. “… We know what time you come in, what time you leave here, and we could have you run off the road any time we want. But we respect you because you respect us.”

Gonzales indicated a complex duality: C.O.s can earn the esteem of their charges, yet an underlying frustration towards officers exists due to conditions or treatment linked to incarceration.

Mary, 50, who requested anonymity for this article, was a jailer and trainer for almost 17 years with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department where she specialized in the care of mentally ill inmates. Although she spent no time working in state institutions, Mary agreed that respect towards the job and the inmates was a key factor in being a successful officer.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that these people are in jail and I don’t look at them as being innocent or guilty. They were arrested for a reason and were put in jail for a reason,” she voiced. “I’ve seen innocent people go in and I’ve seen guilty people come in. I’m not the jury or judge. I don’t do that. All I do is my job, which is to take care of them.”

She complained that in some situations, people may see brutality by the officers but they rarely know “the backstory” of what previously occurred, confessing that she had been repeatedly, physically attacked by inmates during her tenure at the jail.

But did Mary ever witness unethical behavior by jail personnel?

“I try to stay out of that,” she replied, acknowledging that anywhere there is politics, there will be a percentage of corruption.

“If I see it coming, I turn around and I’m like ‘I don’t want anything to do with it.’ It’s not because I’m trying to be blind for it; it’s so I won’t get caught up in it because that’s not my thing.”

Lest critics lament that Mary’s look-away approach protected only herself, she cautioned that unprofessional county officers become so obvious that they invariably get caught and disciplined, regardless of whether or not the outcome makes the news.

“I’ve known of things, but I don’t get involved. It’s been taken care of by supervisors. I hear about them after the fact.”

Mary noted the only time she ever truly witnessed improper behavior was by an officer who did not like her personally, “… and I dealt with that myself,” she said, relating a tale of physically grabbing the officer to get him off of a compliant inmate.

Her detailed ways of the Dallas jail echo what other prisoners and C.O.s have inferred; while prisoner misbehavior can span the spectrum from annoying to outright lethal, poor behavior on the part of officers can derail the proper functioning of such institutions, violate prisoner rights, or endanger inmates and officers alike, should vengeful prisoners decide to take out their ire on someone randomly due to mistreatment.

“There’s always going to be brazenness and a dark side to working there, you know?” considered documentary filmmaker Joe Salinas, 42, as he described what he experienced as a TDCJ officer from 1994 to 2001. “It’s a choice that you make of whether or not you cross that line.”

In December 2013, “Renee,” an inmate from the Crain Unit in Gatesville wrote,“Then there are a select few [officers] who are kind and and helpful or even have a good sense of humor…”

Often, officers and inmates develop a structured cordialness as a way to keep a potential powder keg stable.

“I’d play a cat and mouse game with them,” Mary said about those in her care whom she would catch breaking a small rule, such as leaving personal food on a communal table, which can be an indicator of under-the-radar gambling. “One, it’s a sense of humor thing, you know, get their respect, and I always joked around with the inmates because officers get bored, too. They get bored. We get bored. So sometimes I’d play little games with them.”

She explained that she found shortcuts to remain an authority figure while being mindful of the inmates’ humanity.

“As bad as it may sound or seem from the outside, there’s a lot of comedy and humor that goes on within those walls because you have to find some humor to get through your day while doing your time, instead of being serious” Salinas agreed.

“I’m gonna be honest. I’ve met some of the coolest, smartest … people that were incarcerated. They just got caught doing something like, you know – sometimes I just felt like they didn’t need to be there. There needed to be some type of other treatment, instead of being released in the general population, mixed in with serial killers and rapists, and the bad crop. You’ve got these guys who just kind of messed up with four ounces of weed, or having some coke on them or whatever. They were throwing them in.”

The “them” Salinas referred to was a racially mixed group. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice Fiscal Year 2016 Statistical Report indicates that the largest incarcerated population as of August of that year was 49,266 Black individuals, edging out Hispanics at 49,018, despite a White-majority state population according to a July 2016 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But just as incarceration in Texas is difficult for all inmates, the duty for officers on the inside is burdensome as well. As reported by The Texas Tribune, an inmate was held responsible for the July 2016 murder of officer Mari Johnson in the Robertson Unit, while a year earlier prison guard Timothy Davison was beaten to death by an inmate inside the Telford Unit.

In the case of Johnson’s death, three TDCJ employees were also recommended for termination due to not following prison procedures.

Also in 2016, The Longview News-Journal described how jailer Robert Ransom responded to a medical emergency at the Marvin A. Smith Criminal Justice Facility on Sept. 30 of that year. While giving treatment to an inmate, Ransom suffered a fatal heart attack.

Officers Eligio Garcia and Christopher Davis were killed, along with eight other inmates, in January 2015, when their prison bus slid off an icy highway and was hit by a train.

Such stories from county jails and state prisons indicate a high-risk job many would be unwilling to do; if a situation goes wrong, the cost may be an officer’s life.

“And it was a scary time, too, because of AIDS,” Salinas recalled about his years with the department. “AIDS was insane going on; people infected with the HIV virus, because they weren’t giving out condoms. The state wasn’t issuing any kind of protection or anything.”

He admitted that some female officers, and male officers to a more limited degree, were having sex with infected offenders, and then going home to their families.

“That was just mind-blowing to me that that was even happening,” Salinas uttered.

“We had officers that committed suicide,” added Shirley Southerland, 70, about the Hilltop unit where she served some of her 26 years for the murder of Shawnte Collins – a crime she did not commit and for which she is on parole. In contrast, she also mentioned, casually and without detail, that an officer at the Terrace Unit saved her life.

Salinas affirmed that, just as he saw prisoners who were truly dangerous and C.O.s who were abusive, there were correctional officers and inmates both who would step forward to go above and beyond when it was necessary.

“Oh, all the time,” he emphasized.

Salinas is proud of his past work, and that of his C.O. father before him, but also enthusiastically agrees state prisons are in need of changes and accountability.

“I’ve met people that have reformed, I guess you could say, or they learned their lesson. They learned something from doing the time and they got out,” he said.

He admitted that what was right and what was wrong, regardless of policies, was not always clear-cut.

“There were times when you were questioning yourself, like, “Am I on the right side?” It’s just weird, you know, weird.”

Southerland recounted in part one of the A Broken System series in January, how a ranking officer ordered another C.O. to “stand down on the camera” during a scuffle with another inmate.

The result was that no video was taken of a use-of-force situation, during which a lieutenant kicked the belligerent handcuffed inmate in the face and stomach.

Salinas countered Southerland’s claim, based upon his own experiences as an officer in his units who usually manned the camera during such incidents. He maintained that he never shut down his camera during a confrontation. While he acknowledged a “dirty boss” might have engaged in such actions, the result could backfire easily on all of those involved.

“That’s something that’s the worst,” he reiterated. “To do that, you are jeopardizing your employment and safety. And because they can also go out to the outside judicial system for trial, you can get in a lot of trouble for that, for trying to cover up something.”

Still, a flawed system is not an irredeemable system, some argued.

“They were always trying to improve, always trying to improve and fix things, you know, and try to get out of the ‘broke/don’t fix it’ routine because that might work for that person in their position, but further down the line, in lower positions, it doesn’t work anymore,” Salinas remarked on the TDCJ’s propensity to advance.

He further commented on why more positive directions in the system take so long to occur.

“Sometimes, people would just not be aware of that, or didn’t want to deal with it, or whatever the reason; not to make their life harder, they didn’t want to change anything.

Gonzales discussed the qualifications she would prefer to see in officers of higher positions.

“I would make sure that you had a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, to get into rank. I would do special training for them,” she stated, saying inmates on the cusp of release would be considered as well.

“Teach them how to be in that free world, because we don’t teach them how to be in that free world. When they leave, they have no idea how to do it. They’ve been in prison for three, five, 10, 25 years. They get out after 25 years in prison, they have no idea what to do, how to act, or how to get a job, or anything.”

She exclaimed with some disgust “We don’t teach them anything like that,” while concluding, “There’s so many things that we could be doing that we don’t do.”

A message left in early February requesting to speak with a Cole Unit sergeant was not returned.

A request to the TDCJ public information officer for a phone interview was denied; instead, P.I.O. Robert Hurst offered to answer questions by email. The questions were submitted Feb. 18. No answers have been forthcoming.

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